We expressed our high hopes for this opera quite some time ago. Our anticipation increased to fever pitch when we read that a dress inspired by Big Brother's Makosi would be worn on stage. (PS, it was.) Well, as we predicted, there definitely were some fantastic gowns. And psychological torture. And, at least implicitly, hot lesbian sex. There was also brutal violence perpetrated against a giant purple stuffed kangaroo, onstage urination, and a scene that would have brought great pleasure to Ray Smuckles.
As for the music, though... honestly, we still have no idea whether it was any good or not. (And we've seen a not-insignificant amount of new opera in our time.) Pretty much all of our tried-and-true tools for operatic criticism are completely worthless when it comes to evaluating this piece. And so much of the basic conception of the piece seems so misguided at first as to warrant the label "incompetent."
And yet, and yet: Petra is a work of truly astonishing integrity and conviction, which is no faint praise. At the intermission, we were just feeling annoyed at all the incomprehensible choices that Barry seems to have made. But during the second act two things happened: first, the drama became more interesting, and second, the audience began to grow accustomed to the opera's shtick (or the opera's "compositional strategies," if you prefer). Once you accept the fact that the music isn't going change, and that it is never going to do what a normal opera does, you can start to enjoy it. At times, you enjoy it a lot.
So what does the opera do? Well, it sets every word of Fassbinder's original play, without addition or subtraction. In every other opera based on a play ever written (with a handful of exceptions) the play has to be cut down substantially, for the simple reason that it takes a lot longer to sing a sentence than to say it. Also, because one of the things opera is really good at is expressing emotion through melody, creators of opera will tend to craft moments where characters can reflect, alone, on their emotions. If you decide to just set every word of a stage play, you end up with singers singing veryveryfastallthetime, without anything even close to an aria in sight. Barry then doubles the vocal line with the orchestra at every moment, and adds adds accompanying music that is just as unrelentingly fast, and also VERY VERY LOUD. The audience hardly gets a chance to breathe, let alone the performers.
In addition, no one seemed to have told Barry that vocal music becomes more comprehensible when the natural stresses of spoken English are brought out both by rhythm and by pitch. Using metrical stress sometimes helps too. In any case, the sentences in Petra more often than not came out sounding vaguely robotic.
In the Guardian's puff-piece before the premiere, Barry claims he took this approach to setting the play "because it never occurred to me not to", which implies the composer is either a liar or delusional. (The fact that he claims his music is "basically melodic", and that he lives in a house with no furniture, seem to argue for the latter.)
All this reminded us of something we couldn't quite put our finger on. It certainly wasn't Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, the most famous work to set every word of a preexisting play. And it wasn't Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts either, although some of the orchestral writing — the deceptively banal scales and warm-up exercises running up and down — could pass as suped-up Thomson. The text-setting strategies are reminiscent of the operas of Ezra Pound, but no one save for a few musicologists has ever actually heard those. Then it hit us: the chatty, anti-poetic words, the aimless melodies... this is an atonal, lesbian Umbrellas of Cherbourg!
But despite all of this, you simply have to see it. It falls into that special class of works that include LaMonte Young's String Trio, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, or John Coltrane's Ascension — works that, while you may or may not actually enjoy them, you're really really glad that they exist. You're glad that the creators had the courage of their convictions to see a perhaps misguided idea through its necessary logical outcome.
And of course, Petra has something Metal Machine Music doesn't: a really good story. And really good singers. And did we mention the gowns? And the lesbian sex?
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant has six more performances: September 20, 23, & 29 and October 1, 4, & 7. Tickets start at £8. Image of operatic proto-lesbians Norma and Adalgisa drawn by a young Queen Victoria, borrowed from Belgravia Gallery.